Journey to Mecca: The Greatest Camel Caravan since Lawrence of Arabia
Shimmering heat waves and swirls of desert dust unfurled from the re-creation of the historical Great Damascus Camel Caravan, which stretched for a mile along the horizon.
Almost 1,000 animals and over 500 extras were choreographed into a line meandering through the dunes and across the barren wastes, evoking the era of 783 years before. "The pilgrimage caravan is one extraordinary example of Islamic cultural heritage that has been lost to the world forever, and which we wanted to bring back to life on an unprecedented scale on the giant screen", says Davies. "We hope that this sequence in the film, when Ibn Battuta joins the Damascus pilgrimage caravan to Mecca, will resonate deeply with the Muslim audience as many of their forefathers would have taken this or a similar journey. We also hope it will provide a perfect window into the wonders of Islamic culture and its contribution to human civilization for a non Muslim audience.
Historically, caravans could be up to 30,000 to 40,000 camels strong, with two weeks passing between the first and last leaving the gates of Damascus. The size of a small moving city, they were run like one, from the leading Emir or Caravan Captain, pilgrims, torch bearers, physicians, lawyers, soldiers, mounted Mameluks, medical assistants, traders, servants, musicians, merchants, citizens of all classes in addition to camel, goat and donkey handlers. In those days, pilgrims would travel by foot, camel or horse for up to three years to reach Mecca with no guarantees of reaching their destination or of returning home. Ibn Battuta took 18 months to get to Mecca from Tangier. Everyone traveled at great personal risk dealing with heat, exhaustion and bandits. But the faith pulled them to Mecca.
"When you're sitting on a camel in 52 degrees centigrade and Mecca is a thousand miles away, the admiration you feel for people willing to make that journey is overwhelming. And now we're living the jet age Hajj in which people fly," says Cunningham-Reid.
Preparing Journey to Mecca caravan began six weeks prior to the shoot, with local artisans stitching camel and donkey packs, palanquins (covered litter) in addition to making all the period props such as bows and arrows, flags, goat skin water packs, saddle covers, spears, shields, tents, reed urns and grain baskets, to name but a few artifacts.